Louis Riel: The North-West Rebellion
Who was Louis Riel? The Métis leader commanded two rebellions in western Canada and was tried, convicted and hanged for treason in 1885. Until well into the 20th century Riel was regarded as "misguided and impetuous" at best and a psychotic traitor at worst. But in the 1960s Riel's image began to turn around. Today most Canadians, particularly the Métis, have reclaimed him as a heroic patriot, founder of Manitoba and a Father of Confederation.
Sir John A. Macdonald, prime minister once more, had other worries besides a western insurrection. His national dream, the transcontinental railway, was almost bankrupt. When he received news of a skirmish between the North-West Mounted Police and armed Métis, he saw an opportunity to solve two problems at once. Macdonald would send Canadian troops west on the still-incomplete Canadian Pacific Railway, put down the rebellion and prove the worth of the railway to Canadians.
The North-West Rebellion ended with the Battle of Batoche. Though the 300 Métis and their Cree comrades were capable fighters, they were outnumbered by 800 Canadian soldiers led by Maj.-Gen. Frederick Middleton. After battling for three days, the rebels led by Métis commander Gabriel Dumont were running low on ammunition. On the fourth day, May 12, 1885, the Canadians overwhelmed the rebels.
. The Cree at the time were close to starvation because their traditional source of food, the buffalo, was virtually extinct. They believed their treaty obliged the government to feed them; the government disagreed.
. In March 1885 the Métis formed a provisional government at Batoche after passing a "Revolutionary Bill of Rights" to assert their hold on the land. They took prisoners in the area and occupied the nearby community of Duck Lake.
. A skirmish broke out at Duck Lake when volunteers and recruits from the Northwest Mounted Police ran into a group of natives and Métis. The troops retreated after losing 12 men; the rebels lost six.
. More violence erupted in early April at Frog Lake when a group of Cree under Big Bear's command took several whites and Métis prisoner. Nine settlers died.
. By now the Canadian army under Maj.-Gen. Frederick Middleton was advancing on the region. As a group of them made their way to Batoche, the Métis intercepted them at a place the Métis called Tourond's Coulee and the army called Fish Creek.
. The result was an ambush, with the Métis taking cover in thick bush at the bottom of a ravine. When it was over, six soldiers lay dead and 49 were injured. The Métis had lost four men.
. The next battle, at Batoche, would be the last in the North-West Rebellion. It lasted almost four days as Middleton's troops sought to take the seat of the provisional government and the Métis fought to defend it.
. Louis Riel surrendered on May 15, 1885. He felt that if the Canadians had custody of him they would go easier on the other Métis.
. Not all Métis residents of the region took part in the rebellion or even supported it. Native tribes were also divided, some in part because of historical inter-tribe animosity.
. Louis Riel was formally charged in Regina on July 6, 1885. The charge was high treason, a statute that had been passed in Great Britain five centuries earlier in 1352. Riel's biographer, Maggie Siggins, notes: "With so many headlines, at least in English Canada, screaming for revenge, there was no way the government could consider for Riel anything but the most serious crime on the books."
. The mandatory sentence for this charge was death by hanging.
. In St. Roche, a district of Quebec City, a Riel Defence Committee was struck to support Riel's legal fight. The committee hired three lawyers - François Lemieux, Charles Fitzpatrick, and James Greenshields - to travel west to defend Riel.
. The team planned to use a defence of insanity in pleading Riel's case, but Riel disputed this. He viewed the trial as his opportunity to explain the Métis position, and worried his justification for rebellion would be dismissed if he was deemed insane.
. A six-man jury was chosen. All six were Anglo-Saxon Protestants, and only one could speak French.
. After a trial lasting five days, the jury was sent away to deliberate. One hour later they emerged and declared Riel guilty.
. The jury also recommended mercy for Riel.
. There were two quick appeals, both of which were turned down. The sentence was further delayed when public outcry in Quebec demanded Riel's mental state be examined.
. Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald's advisors warned him of grave political consequences for his Conservative party in Quebec should the sentence be carried out. "He shall hang though every dog in Quebec bark in his favour," Macdonald responded.
. Louis Riel was hanged at Regina on the morning of Nov. 16, 1885.
. Riel's body was transported to Winnipeg by train, arriving there on Dec. 10, 1885. Two days later hundreds of mourners turned out for his funeral cortège and mass at St. Boniface Cathedral.
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: May 13, 1985
Guest(s): Hilda Allen, Stan Cuthand, Thomas Flanagan, Donald Mclean, Mary Morin
Host: Knowlton Nash
Reporter: Dan Bjarnason
Last updated: March 19, 2012
Page consulted on March 27, 2013
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